L’amico Fritz opened at the Teatro Costanzi on 31 October 1891, with two major stars in the cast: Fernando de Lucia as Fritz and Emma Calvé as Suzel. The baritone who sang David, Paul Lhérie, had previously been a tenor, in which capacity he had created the role of Don José in Carmen in Paris in 1875. Like the character he played in Mascagni’s opera, Lhérie was Jewish. Enjoying immediate success at its premiere, Friend Fritz quickly made its way around the world’s major operatic centres, and maintains a place on the fringes of the repertoire to this day.

A simple story

The plot is very simple. At the age of 36, wealthy landowner Fritz Kobus spends his time carousing with close friends, surveyor Frédéric Schoultz and tax collector Monsieur Hâan (Federico and Hanezò in the opera). Fritz is also well known for his kindness and philanthropy, but this bon viveur has decided never to marry and is indeed scornful of the benefits of the institution, despite the insistence of his closest friend David, the local Rabbi, that he should take the plunge.

The opera begins in the spring, on the protagonist’s birthday, hence Fritz’s gift of violets from Suzel, the 17-year-old daughter of Fritz’s tenant farmer. Over the course of the drama his growing interest in the young woman causes him to relent: the two fall in love, and the potential hindrances to their marriage in terms of age and class difference are overcome when they finally become engaged.

In both play and opera (in the latter she is apportioned three arias: more than any other character), Suzel’s role is considerably beefed up from the novel, allowing her to register as much more intelligent and active, the instigator of the romance between herself and Fritz. In the book it is Suzel’s father Christel who brings Fritz the cherries which his daughter has picked, while in the opera this seemingly innocuous gesture blossoms into the score’s most famous set-piece: the so-called ‘Cherry Duet’ between Fritz and Suzel. Christel himself disappears, while the roles of Fritz’s drinking companions are considerably diminished.

An individual sense of direction

Mascagni scores his opera for a medium-sized orchestra. As befits the piece’s relatively modest dimensions, it opens with a Preludietto (little prelude) whose unusual rhythms and harmonies demonstrate Mascagni’s highly individual sense of direction, and an air of lightness and charm prove to be characteristic of the opera as a whole; there are equally genuine touches of melancholy within its melodic warmth. Though there are set-pieces interspersed throughout, most of the opera’s dialogue is set in a fluid, conversational arioso. The chorus makes several interventions, always from offstage.

On two occasions Mascagni draws directly on Alsatian musical source material – in both instances German-language folk songs. Played by an onstage village band and sung by the chorus (orphans benefiting from Fritz’s philanthropy) the march at the end of Act I is based on the Alsatian song Ich bin lustig, while preceding the Cherry Duet in Act II is an offstage chorus of farmworkers that borrows from another called Es trug das Mädelein.

Such offstage effects are frequent. Beppe’s arrival is introduced by his offstage violin solo – a substantial, improvisatory piece in a distinctive Hungarian Roma idiom which continues intermittently on into his melancholy vocal solo ‘Laceri, miseri’, describing how Fritz rescued him. (Assigning the role of a young boy to a female mezzo, incidentally, though common earlier in the 19th century, was unusual by the 1890s.) Music associated with Beppe returns in the anguished Intermezzo before Act III, not long before Beppe’s own sad little song recalling his own experience of being hopelessly in love helps Fritz to reach his much delayed decision regarding Suzel.

Suzel and Fritz

Her three solos are distinctive – her ballata ‘Bel cavalier’ in Act II, in particular, a folksong she sings to herself, has a definite modal, perhaps Jewish, quality. (Specifically represented by David in the opera, the Jewish community in Alsace and Lorraine was strong. In 1790 it had numbered three-quarters of the Jewish population of France as a whole.) Fritz himself has less solo material – though the aria ‘Ed anche Beppe amò’ in Act III is notable – while David has just one solo section in which he exhorts Fritz and his gluttonous friends to get married.

The opera’s most famous section, and arguably one of the highlights of the entire giovane scuola period of Italian opera, is the ‘Cherry Duet’ in Act II, a piece in which the two characters are clearly falling in love without ever actually saying so, their mutual rapture is interpreted instead as a direct response to the beauty of nature. Beginning with a solo oboe on stage, at first in the distance, then growing nearer, the piece opens with light textured freshness but steadily rises to exceptional heights of poetic feeling, its gradations signposted by Mascagni’s unconventional harmonies.

The scene between David and Suzel consciously recalls the Biblical story of Rebecca, wooed on behalf of the middle-aged Isaac by his servant, Eliezer. Suzel’s faith, incidentally – Anabaptist in both novel and play – is not mentioned in the opera, where David, compared to both novel and play, is considerably more active in setting up her marriage.

Designated by Mascagni a ‘commedia lirica’, L’amico Fritz offers an unusual dramatic setup and a score with many musical delights to savour. It deservedly holds a high place amongst Mascagni’s large and varied output as easily his most charming and almost certainly his most loveable opera.